08/12/2010 01:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Should Authors Check Their Amazon Rankings? Uh, No

A few weeks ago I read an interview with's founder, Ron Hogan. One of the questions he was asked was his advice to writers. His answer, in part, was: "Don't obsess over your Amazon rankings." Good advice, I thought, when I read this, having flirted with obsessing over my own Amazon rankings when my book, Spin, came out in January.

Of course, that's easier said then done. And much easier said before I was told about a site called NovelRanks by fellow author Michele Gorman. NovelRanks allows you to input your Amazon URL and presto, you can get hourly updates not just on your Amazon ranking, but also on "actual" sales. (The site's disclaimer is that their sales numbers are based on movement in rankings and are therefore only estimates, but still!)

I confess that I wish I knew about this site months ago. In part to track my own sales numbers, but mostly because it would give me a better idea of the "success" of a campaign I started on Facebook to increase the visibility of some books I thought weren't getting the attention, i.e. sales, they deserved. I had the audacity to call my group "I bet we can make these books bestsellers," and I chose two excellent books by Wyoming writer Shawn Klomparens, Jessica Z. and Two Years, No Rain. The idea of the group is not just to collect members (though I'm happy and grateful for all 1254 of them), but to generate sales. And while I certainly know about some sales because of a giveaway the group is currently running (we're giving away a Kindle and the best chance of winning is proving that you've purchased one of the books), I've spent more time that I'd like to admit checking the Amazon ranking of these two books.

But the existence of this site also has me thinking about the amount of information that's out there for authors these days, and whether that's a good thing. Ten years ago, there was no Amazon (OK, I just checked and Amazon was founded in 1994, so let's just accept a figurative ten years). There definitely wasn't Twitter, or Facebook. And there certainly weren't any blog tours with their immediate review feedback, or Goodreads, where you can "watch" someone's progress through your book (oh, look, they made it all the way to page 212 today!)

Imagine this: your long-lived dream to bring a book to print was finally being realized. Advanced Reader copies were sent out to newspapers and magazines, and maybe, if you were lucky, your book got reviewed in some of them. And then, you just waited. If your book got reviewed, the review wasn't online, so there was no comments section, no outlet for you to get your friends to write comments vehemently disagreeing with some critics' evisceration of something you spent years of your life working on. You probably didn't have a website, or an email address for fans, so maybe it was weeks, or months even before you heard from anyone outside your immediate family about how much they loved, loved, loved your book. (Or maybe never -- putting pen to paper, finding an envelope, finding the author's address and actually mailing a letter seems like way too many steps to take to tell someone I liked their work. I mean, if I loved it maybe, but...) How did authors survive in this information vacuum?

But also -- think of where this might all be going. Right now you can know with a certain amount of precision how many books a day (or how few books a day) you're selling on Amazon. But Amazon isn't the only game in town. What about all the physical bookstores, and the other online sites -- won't their information be available in the same format soon? (Of course, it is available through Neilsen, but that data is meant for publishers who may or may not divulge it in to their authors, god bless them.) Oh yes, it will be. And then what?

I hesitate to suggest the things I'm thinking of because, hey, I might want to use these ideas some day, and also, they terrify me, but what if, imagine if, when you bought a book online, the author was alerted immediately by email or text or RSS feed, not just of the sale, but of the identity buyer? And since Facebook, and Twitter and Goodreads will all be one great big net of interwoven social connectivity that no one will be able to escape, you can become instant BFF's with the person who plunked their money down to buy your book? And then you'll be able to click on Google street view -- which will now be like those airport scanners, so you'll see your book buyer in their house, in their undergarments -- and you'll be able to watch them as they turn the pages (virtually or for reals) late into the night ...

Maybe Ron Hogan was right.